South Denali Visitor Center Complex: Construction but not Protection
by Brian Okonek
After 40 years of proposals to develop a visitor center somewhere within Denali State Park, work began in 2013 on the South Denali Visitor Center Complex (SDVCC). A ground breaking ceremony this past fall included the major agency partners in the project, which are the State of Alaska’s Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and the National Park Service (Denali National Park and Preserve). Initial work on Phase 1 included construction of a road, approximately one-and-a-half miles in length that leaves the George Parks Highway at Milepost 135.4, and the extension of electrical power up the Parks Highway to the site. The road will lead to other Phase 1 facilities to be completed in 2014, including a 35-site RV campground, 22-site day-use parking lot, maintenance/ranger office, and interpretive trail.
When additional funding is secured, Phase 2 will extend the road another three miles to a tree-line site where a proposed destination-oriented visitor center and trails will be constructed. This 17,000 square foot visitor center is planned for the south end of Curry Ridge near lake 1787′ at an elevation of 1,840′. This is in the southeastern section of Denali State Park east of the George Parks Highway. Additional facilities including a 30-bus parking lot, 100 additional car parking sites, a 15-site walk-in campground and a visitor contact area will also be added in this phase.
The State of Alaska legislature provided funds for Phase 1, but the original funding plan included a federal appropriation for some of the Phase 2 components, particularly the destination visitor center. The National Park Service originally got involved in part because agency staff hoped such a development would reduce the growth in demand for trips along the Denali park road, though it is possible that a south side visitor center will not draw people away from the north side, but rather just add another venue for people to partake in while in the Denali region. At present, neither Congress nor the Alaska legislature has appropriated funds for Phase 2.
Completion of the entire SDVCC is estimated to cost $40 million. SDVCC is intended to be a major attraction for tourism, attracting 2,000 visitors per day and with proponents describing it as a “world class” experience. Unfortunately, the responsible agencies have not yet taken the necessary steps to maintain the region as a “world class” experience. During the scoping and planning process there was public support for the SDVCC only if other critical measures to assure quality development and resource protection for Denali State Park were completed. The measures included:
- completion of comprehensive biological surveys so that planners would know what wildlife habitat should be protected and how to mitigate for loss of habitat due to construction of facilities in the park
- the buyout of several private inholdings in the park to protect the scenic vistas along the George Parks Highway and from the visitor center, and to prevent strip development within the park
- update of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough (MSB) Denali State Park Special Land Use District (SPUD) regulations to shape development on private inholdings within the park and prevent chaotic and unsightly development
- the closure of areas within Denali State Park to snowmachine use to allow for a fair balance of recreation and to protect wintering wildlife.
To date, only part of one of these measures has been implemented. The Hooper Bay Native Corporation and the State of Alaska negotiated a deal where the state received a portion of the corporation’s land to construct the first three-quarters of a mile of the access road.
The local, state, and federal agencies involved are very excited about completing the construction project, but have shown considerably less interest in implementing the measures that everyone agreed were necessary to address the consequences of construction. It is troubling that despite years of planning the necessary guidelines are still not in place to control development, protect park resources and assure an aesthetically pleasing visitor experience in Denali State Park. Adequate steps have not been taken to protect the park itself, nor the region, from the impacts of hundreds of thousands of projected visitors and the new commercial enterprises that will set up shop to serve them. Visitors, businesses, and the park will all benefit if the agreed-upon measures are completed first, before Phase 2 begins.
Throughout the country and even at the existing entrance to Denali, poorly planned and managed gateway community development mars the landscape that visitors come to enjoy, and local communities spend vast amounts of money and time to repair the damage. We have a chance to do it right the first time for South Denali. We even have a plan that describes exactly what needs to be done. The partner agencies should keep their commitments and coordinate their efforts and resources to insure protection – rather than construction – comes first as they look ahead to Phase 2.